Electric vehicle driving in forest

Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?

Rhythm Team on Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Although there is still plenty of opportunity to further reduce emissions associated with electrical vehicles over their lifetime, these vehicles contribute fewer greenhouse gases — and therefore contribute less to climate change — vs. traditional gas-powered cars. Let’s talk about it.

Greater clarity towards the human impact on climate change has led to a growing buzz about sustainability and clean energy. Wanting to be part of the solution, governments, businesses, and consumers are looking at ways to mitigate their carbon footprint and come closer to living within planetary boundaries.

In the United States, the transportation sector accounts for roughly 29% of total emissions, making up the largest single sector source of greenhouse emissions in the country. Therefore, the transition to an electrified vehicle fleet presents opportunity to clean up the transportation sector and make it more sustainable.

At first glance, the zero-tailpipe emission of a battery electric vehicle (EV) makes it stand out as an obvious alternative to traditional internal-combustion-engine (ICE) cars in reducing carbon emissions. But there is more to it when you look under the hood…

When you consider the intensive battery manufacturing process, the source of power to charge an EV, and the end-of-life management of an EV battery, it becomes clear that there are a number of aspects and processes that can still be improved to reduce the environmental impact of electric vehicles.

These considerations have caused speculation over whether EVs are truly better for the environment. Examining the different stages of the EV lifecycle, we’ve looked at how EVs really stack up to ICE cars.

Battery Production

The lithium-ion battery is now the industry standard for storing and discharging energy to electric vehicles. Manufacturing a lithium-ion battery requires energy intensive mining of rare earth elements (REE) such as lithium, cobalt, neodymium and nickel. Because REE are found in nature in relatively low concentrations, mining operations can also lead to extensive land removal and other environmental implications. From heavy-duty excavation equipment to high-intensity refining processes, manufacturing lithium-ion batteries is more carbon and energy intensive than manufacturing an internal combustion engine. On the whole, this translates to electric vehicles contributing more to climate change than traditional gas-powered cars during the manufacturing phase of vehicle lifecycle.

Power Source

Studies have shown that the fuel source used to deliver electrical power to the vehicle plays a significant role in how carbon intensive the EV ultimately is. For instance, Germany has a fairly coal-dependent energy profile. Therefore, charging an EV in Germany likely requires the burning of fossil fuels. This makes for worse lifecycle emissions than operating an EV in a country like Norway, which generates the majority of its electricity from clean hydroelectric sources.

The fuel cycle of EVs — how the power to charge the vehicle is sourced — varies significantly between regions and countries. This goes to show the impact of procuring power from clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. If you have an electric vehicle and want to maximize the environmental good of your driving, then be sure to check out our green energy plans.

Driving Emissions

This is where electric vehicles shine and absolutely leave conventional gas-powered cars in the dust. When you drive an electric vehicle, the battery powered mechanical work does not produce any tailpipe emissions. This is in stark contrast to ICE cars that have to ignite fuel and emit pollutant exhaust through the tailpipe.

Despite the more carbon-intensive manufacturing process of EVs, they generally make up the difference in carbon emissions within the first 1-2 years of driving use. All driving past that time separate EVs from their counterpart ICE cars in terms of emissions to the atmosphere. A European study comparing electric vehicles to traditional ICE cars revealed that typical EVs generate 50% less greenhouse gas emissions than ICE cars in the first 93,000 miles of driving.

In addition to having no tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles also have far fewer moving parts than conventional cars. Without having an engine in need of lubrication, electric vehicles don’t require oil or oil changes. Overall, EV maintenance is relatively basic when compared to gas-powered cars. Add that to the benefits, convenience, and minimal resource intensity of driving an electric vehicle.

Battery Recycling

As we are in the early phase of vehicle fleet electrification, this portion of the EV lifecycle is still unclear as recycling programs are forming and being introduced. Yet with millions of EV batteries set to reach end-of-life in the coming decade, this is an issue that can’t go unmentioned.

In the United States, virtually all lead acid batteries used in conventional gas-powered cars are recycled. While there is already some protocol in place to recycle portions of lithium-ion batteries, there is not yet standard protocol for retiring these batteries.

There are a number of viable options being explored, such as reusing batteries for less demanding functions like utility-scale peak-demand response; there is also potential to recycle RRE and other materials to reduce the demand for new raw materials, which would lower the carbon emissions associated with battery production.

The EV manufacturing process, largely due to the production of lithium-ion batteries, is more energy intensive than manufacturing traditional cars. Considering that roughly 50% of manufacturing-related emissions are due to electricity usage during the battery production process, the carbon intensity of EV manufacturing is set to decrease in coming decades as cleaner energy sources penetrate the electricity grid.

As cleaner energy sources become more prevalent, the emissions related to the EV fuel cycle will also decrease. In many places around the world, there are already clean energy alternatives. Whether you have an EV or not, powering your home and life with renewable energy is a superb way to reduce your own emissions and embrace the wave of sustainable living.

While there is still room for improvement, the undeniably cleaner-driving electric vehicles are proven to contribute less greenhouse gas emissions over their lifespan than conventional cars. This makes them better for the environment and paves a bright road ahead for society.

In even more simpler terms, YES, electric vehicles are in fact better for the environment.

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